AUGUSTA — Tim Hardy was asleep in his camp at 3:30 a.m. on July 6 when he got the call from a customs official at the country’s border with Quebec: A major train derailment and explosion had happened in Lac-Megantic, 30 miles over the border.
Hardy, director of the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency and Farmington’s assistant fire chief, left with other firefighters in a tower truck and pickup truck just before 5 a.m. for the popular tourist town, not knowing what to expect. Seven other area departments responded. Border guards waved them through at the Coburn Gore crossing.
Approaching the town, the Farmington firefighters saw a massive smoke plume billowing from Lac-Megantic. When they got to town, they saw leveled buildings. Hardy described it as a “war zone.”
“I never witnessed anything like this, other than what I saw on TV,” he said.
Hardy was a member of a four-person Wednesday panel at the Augusta Civic Center on authorities’ response to when an unattended 74-car runaway train carrying crude oil derailed near Lac-Megantic’s downtown, sparking a massive fire and explosion, killing 47 and destroying 40 buildings.
He was joined on the panel, at the Maine Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference, by Canadian emergency officials who responded to the crisis: Lt. Daniel Campagna, the top provincial police official in the area surrounding the town, Capt. Rene Cayer, emergency management operations coordinator for Quebec police and Jean Savard, a planning chief for the Quebec Ministry of Public Security.
The panel said their international mutual aid arrangements during disasters, authorized by a 1999 compact between northeastern states and the eastern Canadian provinces, were essential to responding to the crisis.
“When there’s a human disaster or a human crisis, the border doesn’t exist,” Campagna said.
Maine departments, from towns including Rangeley, Phillips, Strong and Eustis, sent 45 firefighters to the scene for more than a full day of work. Ladder trucks from Rangeley and Farmington were able to get water on train cars still filled with oil, keeping them from potentially exploding.
There were some issues in responding, Hardy said.
It was hard to communicate with responders at the scene while on the way to the town, and Hardy said he and his fellow firemen didn’t speak French, Quebec’s official language, so it took a while to find an English-speaking first responder to translate once in Lac-Megantic. Hardy said he has since identified locals who speak French who could go with responders to Quebec if needed in the future.
The disaster has sparked calls for further railroad regulation on both sides of the border. Rangeley Fire Chief Tim Pellerin was in Washington D.C. earlier this month to testify before a U.S. Senate committee at Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ invitation. He called for increased training for departments that may be called upon to respond to incidents involving hazardous transportation materials, among other things.
Earlier this month, the Federal Railroad Administration announced a proposed rule change requiring two-person crews on trains carrying crude oil, also establishing crew size standards on freight and passenger rail.
Also, on Wednesday, the Canadian government announced it would be phasing out the types of tanker train cars that exploded in Lac-Megantic. DOT-111 tank cars account for about 70 percent of all tankers on the North American rails, but are prone to rupture, often splitting open like soda cans after derailment, according to the Associated Press.
But the Canadian and American officials in Augusta on Wednesday said the mutual aid arrangements worked in response to the Lac-Megantic crisis, of particular importance to Maine, which has lots of rural rail carrying crude oil itself.
“It worked,” Cayer said. “It is working.”